The time for pleasantries is over. After a week-long build-up in which both teams waxed lyrical about the good qualities of the opposition, the stage is now set for a brutal battle.
Jan de Koning, Rugby365.com
Currie Cup play-off matches are not for the faint of heart and encounters between the Sharks and Lions have always been at the top end of the scale in terms of physical demands.
And in this game there is so much more at stake – not just because it is the semifinal, but because neither team have won a trophy for years.
The Sharks last tasted success in 1996 and last played in a Currie Cup Final in 2003. The Lions narrowly lost in last year’s Final to the Cheetahs, but they also go back to before the turn of the century for their last Currie Cup win – 1999.
That is why both teams have placed so much emphasis on this match. They have come too far to let it slip now.
And both teams have made significant adjustments to their approach during the week to ensure the players are in peak condition on the day of the match.
As Sharks coach John Plumtree said, he doesn’t want his team to leave their form on the training field.
“It’s really important that they don’t play the game until Saturday but wait for then,” Plumtree said.
“There is no point in using up all that energy, so keeping them relaxed and focused is important. At this stage, there is not much more we can do in terms of preparation to make them play better, it is just to ensure they build up their energy levels and by Saturday are ready to explode.”
Lions coach Eugene Eloff also spoke of the need to “get it right” on the day and hope that the ball bounces for his team.
“Any team that gets into the play-offs will be very well prepared, so it will take some luck to pull it off on the day,” Eloff said.
He added that he may well “tweak” his team’s tactics, but dismissed the notion of his team taking a “safety first approach” into the game.
“I won’t necessary become conservative or change a lot, but I am thinking of tweaking the game plan,” he said, adding: “I have made a careful analysis of the Sharks and planned my tactics accordingly.”
The key for both teams will be to dominate territory and possession, which means winning the battle up front first.
However, Lions captain Cobus Grobbelaar spoke of the Sharks’ game-breakers as the biggest threat.
“They have some great individuals,” he said, explaining that turnover ball will be costly – as it was in their last encounter a fortnight ago.
“With those individuals, when they get turnovers or force you into errors, they will get over the advantage line and as we all know they have great finishers.”
Grobbelaar was at pains to stress that the key is to “retain possession”, because the Sharks punish you for any errors.
Players to watch:
For the Sharks: The old heads will settle things down, but it is the excitement that youngsters like Francois Steyn, JP Pietersen, Ruan Pienaar, Ryan Kankowski and Jean Deysel create that makes this team worth watching. However, everybody’s favourite at the moment is that beastly fellow – Tendai Mtawarira.
For the Lions: The decision to move Earl Rose to fullback means the spotlight will shine even brighter on him, following his most recent slump in form. But watch for Louis Ludik’s powerful runs on the wing, Jaque Fourie’s almost unassumingly powerful defence, Trompie Nontshinga’s impressive finishing, Cobus Grobbelaar’s ability to secure turnovers and Heinke van der Merwe’s awesome scrumming power.
Head to head: As with any game you can pick all 15 positions and assess them. However, will pick as few key battles, starting at hooker – where Sharks Springbok Bismarck du Plessis will face a strong challenge from the Lions’ Willie Wepener at hooker. There is the explosive speed of Sharks No.8 Ryan Kankowski against the honest endeavours of the underrate Lions man Ernst Joubert. Then there is French superstar Frederic Michalak with his creative genius that will face-off against the trusty boot of Lions pivot Louis Strydom in flyhalf battle.
Road to the playoffs:
v Western Province won 28-25
v Boland won 38-13
v Bulls lost 35-14
v Falcons won 28-10
v Cheetahs lost 31-9
v Lions won 16-11
v Griquas won 15-44
v Western Province won 10-32
v Boland won 7-41
v Bulls won 34-24
v Cheetahs won 22-10
v Falcons won 19-44
v Lions won 20-34
v Griquas won 66-12
v Bulls lost 7-21
v Cheetahs lost 22-18
v Falcons won 35-23
v Boland won 57-17
v Griquas won 32-36
v Sharks lost 16-11
v Western Province won 27-13
v Bulls won 27-30
v Cheetahs lost 28-38
v Falcons won 14-83
v Griquas won 41-20
v Boland won 10-31
v Sharks lost 20-34
v Western Province lost 14-6
Prediction: It is a simple game of creative genius against honest endeavour. The Sharks with 12 internationals in the starting XV against a Lions team of some talented provincial players – with the odd Springbok thrown in for good measure. The Sharks have the momentum and form and at home they may well again have too muc gas in the tank for the Lions. The Sharks to win by between 10 and 15 points.
Sharks: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Adrian Jacobs, 12 Francois Steyn, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Johann Muller (captain), 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 John Smit, 17 Deon Carstens, 18 Albert van den Berg/Nikolai Blignaut, 19 Keegan Daniel, 20 Rory Kockott, 21 Bradley Barritt, 22 Waylon Murray.
Lions: 15 Earl Rose, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Doppies la Grange, 11 Trompie Nontshinga, 10 Louis Strydom, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Justin Wheeler, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar (captain), 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Anton van Zyl, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Heinke van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Lawrence Sephaka, 18 Jannes Labuschagne, 19 Derick Minnie, 20 Chris Jonck, 21 Michael Killian, 22 Jaco van Schalkwyk.
Date: Saturday, October 11
Venue: Absa Stadium, Durban
Kick-off: 14.30 (12.30 GMT)
Weather: Sunny and clear skies. Low of 16°C to a high of 27°C
Referee: Mark Lawrence
Touch judges: Deon van Blommestein, Cobus Wessels
TMO: Johann Meuwesen